Norman likes zombies. It won’t last.

ParaNorman is one of the great animated films during this animated film renaissance we’re having. Every year for the last pile I can remember has had at least one or two that make even people who think animated films are just trifles for kids think twice. With this one and Brave leading the way, 2012 is shaping up well for the genre. Sooner or later I’m going to have to stop separating animated films into their own broad genre. It’s more accurate that ParaNorman is a proper horror movie, though a lighter one and definitely family oriented, than “an animated film” as if it has more in common with Brave than with Hocus Pocus (it doesn’t).

As to why ParaNorman is so good, it mostly comes from a simple story about being tolerance. The movie is never preachy, always witty and full of heart, and gets across a familiar theme: some people are different and how we treat them matters, but so does how they treat us. ParaNorman is wonderfully even-handed about it. The theme and its adjuncts are easy to view through the frame of bullying, a hot topic in North America, and I can’t imagine this is unintentional. It might be worthwhile, then, to summarize ParaNorman as the best kids’ movie about bullying that I can remember.

But it is also more than that.

Norman can see ghosts everywhere and lives with one foot in their world, friendly and self-assured with them in a way he isn’t with living people.

Friendless Norman (The Road‘s Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a horror junkie. It’s an interesting choice given that Norman seems to have always possessed the ability to see ghosts. The movie hints that he’s capable of much more, but I’ll get to that. Instead of doing some kind of superhero thing where he discovers/deals with this gift, he has inherited it genetically and the movie just begins with him pretty much comfortable with it. The ghosts all seem friendly back, especially his grandma who just hangs around watching TV with him. The horror elements begin to encroach when Norman learns more about some local mythology about a witch’s curse.

The town of Blithe Hollow is one of those little towns with one theme, their chosen piece of interesting legacy that they embrace too fully. This is the story of the witch who cursed her seven accusers to an existence of undeath. About to die himself, Uncle Penderghast (John Goodman) tracks Norman down and warns him that he has to stop the curse from being fulfilled. In Norman’s family, Uncle P is the bigger pariah than Norman. Norman’s home life, though, isn’t amazing. His father and sister pick on him and fail to understand him while his mother is sensitive to his needs but woefully unable to say or do anything that really helps. Norman seems to find solace with the horror movies, the ghosts, and the macabre nature of his existence. However, it’s small comfort as he is bullied and harassed at school, mostly by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

In true ironic fashion, it’s only when Norman tries to have a normal life and make normal friends, like Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), that Uncle P ups and dies leaving him with all the responsibility for the witch and her biz.

Alvin is so Alvin.

While trying to settle things down on his own, everyone else in Norman’s immediate life sort of finds their way into his night of trials. First is Alvin who follows him into the woods, then Neil who just wants to hang out with him anyway, and Norman’s cheerleader sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and Neil’s jock brother Mitch (Casey Affleck). It’s interesting that the older siblings are the opposites of the younger, but only when you look skin deep. As the five of them try to stop the witch, they are harried by the seven undead villagers who put her to death 300 years prior. Most of the movie’s horror elements come out of interactions with these zombie guys, who only Norman can understand. Every scary bit is undercut with some slapstick, though, and there are some really fun reversals that tie back into the theme of the movie. Not the kind of stuff you’d expect. Whenever ParaNorman threatens to go back to the familiar, it turns around and surprises you.

For example, the kids wind up at the town archive trying to figure out where the witch is buried. Meanwhile, the zombies have been totally kicked around by the citizens, all of whom accept the supernatural occurrence in stride and with blood lust that’s used for humor. At first. The mob figures the zombies are inside the archives, not knowing about the kids, and whip themselves into a frenzy. Suddenly it’s the monsters who are victims of violence and persecution and the kids are threatened by the fear-inspired frenzy of their friends, families, and neighbors. It’s a great reversal and leads organically to a better understanding of what’s going on in Blithe Hollow for the characters in the movie and the characters in the audience.

The basic theme and catharsis are zipped up right there, but there’s more for Norman to do.

Under their stereotypical appearances, the older kids have interesting things going on. Well, maybe not Alvin…

At first Norman accepts the witch business with reluctance. As the plot thickens, he becomes more personally invested. When he finally learns the truth, he knows he has to do what he can to end the cycle of witchy retribution once and for all. What follows is his sojourn into her burial place, a part of the movie that hits the warp-to-fantastical button and hard. Much of the supernatural elements are fairly grounded until Norman goes to his final encounter. Of course, much of what happens to him is a combination of illusion and memory (and we know it), but it’s still a visually striking and tonally epic climax that you don’t see coming. Some have described it as a sequence right out of  JRPG and that’s an interesting observation.

It elevates the movie suddenly, this combination of imagery, music, emotional content, etc that is the final piece of the thematic pie, the last catharsis, that drives home the thing that makes tolerance possible: forgiveness. I wish I could show you pictures of this part of the movie, but I’m also glad I can’t as it should be seen without preview. The last moment is a beautiful one that had me swallowing back a lump in my throat. Like Beasts of the Southern WildParaNorman is largely about the responsibilities of adults toward children and manages to be just as poignant about this while juggling all the other stuff. They are not similar movies, but had this shared element that I deeply respond to.

Also it bears mentioning that the JRPG comparison is not made because the movie has an oblique finale. Quite the opposite. ParaNorman has a moving and thoughtful climax (the resolution with the “witch” I mention above) and a very nice denouement with the Babcock family (Norman’s), a moment that brings the opening full circle and puts another layer of catharsis over the ending.

Special note about Mitch: there’s a really funny throwaway line toward the end, as they go to tie up the Courtney-Mitch romance potential, which I’m surprised made it into a kids’. Surprised and proud of the Laika for having the stones to include it. It also exposes the inner workings of seemingly by-book characters like Mitch and is adhesive to the core themes of the film.

Norman’s disconnect with the living makes him lonely but everything works out in the end.

Now that I’ve discussed the narrative, I would be remiss not to talk a bit about some other stuff.

First is the lavish visual design of the movie. Like Laika’s Coraline, ParaNorman is actually stop-motion with CG-assisted animation. Basically all the sets and characters and props are real, physical objects (some made with 3D Printers!!!) that were manipulated by hand and computer to produce what you see on screen. The artistry and attention to detail are beyond impressive. The movie, while nothing special in 3D, is beautiful and worth seeing on that alone.

Then there’s the music, much of which is synthy and a throwback to 80’s horror movie scores. When the title cards came up with the synthesizer beats, I knew I was watching a movie made by devout horror fans with an affection for the cheesy and comedic aspects of the genre. ParaNorman plays like a bloodless version of something Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi (there’s a lot of Raimi in this as is) might have made in his early career.

If you like this sort of thing, you need to see this movie. I would say everybody should see it anyway.

Norman is an inspiring hero for every kid that has trouble fitting in.